Tobacco tax-hike campaign gears up

Backers of raising Utah’s tax on tobacco products are preparing to launch a statewide campaign to build support for the effort, which they say would bring in an estimated $76 million.

Organizers say they plan to launch autodial calls, circulate electronic petitions, hang pamphlets on doors and air radio ads to drum up support for the tax.

Utah legislative leaders are already eyeing the tobacco tax as part of a preliminary plan taking shape to help close a budget shortfall projected to be as high as $850 million, although Gov. Gary Herbert has said he does not plan to propose any tax hikes in his budget.

“We’re doing the tobacco tax increase really for the sake of the health and wellness of Utahns and particularly those Utahns who smoke,” said Michael Siler, government relations director for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. “Our goal is to raise the tax and incentivize them to quit.”

The state currently levies a 69.5-cent tax on each pack of cigarettes sold in the state, which ranks 36th in the nation. In the last budget year, the tobacco tax generated about $62 million in tax revenues, $8 million of which went to smoking prevention and cancer research efforts.

It also has the lowest tobacco use rate in the country, with about one in 11 residents smoking cigarettes. But that still translates to nearly 180,000 smokers and health care costs of more than $345 million per year.

The advocates argue that raising
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Utah’s 69.5 cent per-pack cigarette tax would prompt 3,000 youth and 10,000 adults to stop smoking and another 19,300 youth to not start in the first place.

Opponents of the tobacco tax, including the cigarette makers and Utah retailers, managed to beat back an effort to raise the tax last year, arguing that raising Utah’s tax would simply drive cigarette sales into neighboring states that have lower tobacco taxes.

Other legislators argued that the tax was more about balancing the budget than helping smokers quit and the burden should not fall on tobacco users to make ends meet.

A report by Utah’s Tax Review Commission last month noted that raising the tax could discourage smoking, but in doing so would reduce the number paying the tax and sap disposable income that might be used for other purchases.

By Robert Gehrke, 10/07/2009
The Salt Lake Tribune

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